Published in Business -

The right and wrong ways to incentivise digital donations.

Being responsible for marketing and fundraising at a not-for-profit organisation is a big responsibility. A bigger responsibility when your employer relies entirely on donations from members of the public.

It can also be demanding. As we mention in this article, you’re overseeing all kinds of initiatives across multiple channels, managing multiple teams, maintaining the reputation and integrity of a brand, and so much more… all while navigating a massively competitive charity sector.

And while you’re doing it, you have to think deeply and strategically about how to connect with and encourage donors.

It can be daunting. Especially when donations aren’t coming in at the volume or with the consistency you’re aiming for.

How can you make the job easier for yourself?

One way is by taking a closer look at why people donate… and why they don’t. Behavioural science gives us so many useful insights into what motivates and discourages people from contributing to a cause. In this article we look at what marketers and fundraisers can learn from some of the research in this field, particularly in relation to online donation options and messaging.

First things first: ‘Humans are a generous species.’

The quote in the sub-heading above isn’t a hopeful assertion or a twee bumper sticker message. It comes direct from a research-backed white paper prepared by the University of California, Berkeley. The authors go on to say:

[A] host of studies have uncovered evidence that humans are biologically wired for generosity.

Some researchers have proposed that early human groups whose members demonstrated altruism (or ‘prosocial norms’), were more likely to survive than the ones who didn’t. In fact, Charles Darwin was thinking along those lines more than 150 years ago. So there may well be an evolutionary basis to our tendency towards generosity.

But even if we step away from the idea of survival of the fittest, there’s also a really solid body of research that suggests we simply feel better when we’re generous. In fact consistent prosocial behaviour may even make us more psychologically and physically healthy.

What’s any of this got to do with marketing? Well, this article aims to offer tips based on research, and our inherent generosity is a useful jumping off point for all of  them.

When in a position of organisational responsibility, it can be tempting to concentrate on numbers alone. Or to consider revenue as the product of a dispassionate transaction. This is (we hope, at least) a timely reminder that although a charitable contribution may be a calculated financial decision for some people, the vast majority are giving with the intention of improving society. They’re drawing on inherent human generosity to support a cause.

As the former President of the United Nations Foundation, Kathy Calvin, once put it:

‘Giving is not about making a donation. It’s about making a difference.’

And the difference that giving can make extends beyond monetary contribution on its own. It can also bring about a contagion… but in the best way possible.

Animals Australia—creating a virtuous chain reaction.

A study by James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University demonstrated that when one person behaves generously, it inspires observers to behave generously later, toward different people.

In the paper they said:

‘Each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom [they do] not know and [have] not met.’

In other words, generosity spawns generosity.

This is one of the ideas at the heart Animals Australia’s decision to add a gifting option to their digital donation form. The modest design change made a significant difference to donations straight away. Not only did some donors use the gift certificates more than once, many also donated on behalf of a loved one before also making a traditional donation themselves.

What Animals Australia observed was a happy contagion—a kind of virtuous chain reaction. And it was created in part by the fact that gifted donations exposed friends and family members to a cause some had never considered before.

The best part? There’s no obvious end point. There’s no happiness circuit breaker. Or, to use the language of a study that looked at whether there was a positive feedback loop between prosocial spending and wellbeing, ‘happiness runs in a circular motion’.

Not everyone’s generosity is the same.

So, as a species we’re generous by nature. But that doesn’t mean we all act generously for exactly the same reasons, in exactly the same way, or when presented with exactly the same stimuli.

One of infinite differences between us is bound up in an idea known as regulatory focus theory. It suggests that we fit into one of two categories.

We’re either:

  • Promotion focused, which means we’re motivated by a desire to reach goals; we concentrate on growth, advancement, and accomplishment.

or we’re

  • Prevention focused, which means we have a desire to avoid negative outcomes and to fulfil our responsibilities; we concentrate on safety, security, and obligation.

It’s important to point out that nobody is one at the total exclusion of the other. But many of us definitely lean one way.

What can marketers take from this dichotomy? Well, it stands to reason that you’d communicate with a promotion focused person differently to how you’d speak with a prevention focused person.

Now, in truth, different studies have come up with different findings on what the ideal message and content type is for these two types of potential donors.

One study found that prevention focused potential donors are less likely to give to a charity when presented with ‘negative social information’. Messages such as ‘donations so far have been slow’ or ‘few have donated so far’. In other words, it’s probably best to avoid publicly promoting the fact you’re disappointed by how a fundraising campaign is performing, and definitely best not to say it to your prevention-focused cohort.

Another study found that prevention-focused people don’t respond well to what’s described as a ‘sadness appeal’. That’s when a not-for-profit talks about, say, the suffering of humans or animals as a way of explaining a serious societal problem. Importantly, that study didn’t say that all sadness appeals were flawed. In fact, it refers to other research that suggests mentioning harsh realities can often elicit sympathy, empathy, and prosocial behaviour. But—and it’s a big but—the study found that it’s generally best to be hopeful in your messaging. Or to add hope to a sadness appeal, and to do it a particular order: sadness first followed by hope. In other words, ‘Here’s an awful problem that puts this person’s future at terrible risk. But if we intervene in this way, that person can grow up to be healthy and happy.’

The point is, everyone’s different. And while we all have the capacity for generosity, that obviously doesn’t mean we all donate to every cause that we encounter.

It’s always useful to remember you’re not talking to a homogeneous group, and one size rarely fits all when it comes to expressing the good a donation can do.

Beware the reactance effect.

It’s also useful to remember that people generally respond negatively when they feel they’re being manipulated or told what to do.

In psychology, this is known as reactance. It ‘occurs as a response to a perceived threat to personal freedom or one’s sense of control’.

According to reactance theory, proposed by psychology researcher Jack Brehm in the 1960s, when someone feels their freedom is threatened they’re motivated to restore it, often by doing the opposite of what they’re told.

As a marketer at a not-for-profit, when you trigger reactance in a potential donor, you risk pushing them towards a lower donation… or no donation at all.

How do you avoid it?

One study suggests that you should refrain from mixing your messages about why a potential donor should give. Specifically, the researchers found that if you mention an altruistic reason (why the donation benefits someone else) in addition to an egoistic reason (why the donation benefits the donor), the message tends to be less effective. What they proposed was that by combining the two reasons, a fundraiser elicits in their audience ‘increased persuasion awareness’. By that they mean, they’re more cognisant of the fact they’re being coaxed or coerced. That leads directly to reactance.

Interestingly, the same study found that egoistic reasons aren’t ‘wrong’ or necessarily ineffective. They can work. But they don’t work as well when presented alongside appeals to unselfishness.

Other research found that giving donors a greater sense of agency quite significantly increased the amount they donated. The study looked at two ways of doing that:

  • ‘Targeting-via-options’ allowed a potential donor to choose which from a series of possible projects their donation went.
  • ‘Targeting-via-amounts’ allowed a potential donor to choose an amount ‘linked to the charitable project they want to target’.

The findings also underscored the point that not all people are the same when it comes to giving. The researchers concluded that ‘frequent, generous, and long-tenured donors are more responsive to’ the above targeting options than other types of donors.

Subtle, empathetic incentives work.

We’re a generous species by nature, but the not-for-profit and charity sector is an extremely competitive landscape and not everyone can donate to every cause.

Behavioural science can give us all sorts of hints at the best way to appeal to this generosity. But we’ve only mentioned a fraction of the whole in this article and, as with so much academic research, studies are often contradictory.

If there’s one overarching theme, however, it’s this: treating donors with respect is far more effective than trying to trick, browbeat, or manipulate them. Although not every prospective giver will respond in precisely the same way to your appeals, it’s generally good practice to:

  • Offer them new opportunities to spread their kindness (without totally upturning what they know and expect of your donation process).
  • Remember that some people respond better to accomplishments and attainment, while others are more concerned with safety, protection and responsibility.
  • When you present your case for why donation is so important, consider following any negative message with a positive one.
  • Be careful about pushing supporters away by making them feel their freedom or agency is being threatened.

In the main, well-worded, thoughtful messages can lead to higher levels of donation, higher amounts of donation and, in the best cases, a powerful chain reaction of generosity.

If you’d like to have a chat about marketing strategy in relation to online fundraising, we’re ready and willing. Give us a bell.